Pritzker’s Nearly $45B Capital Plan Is Way Better for Transportation Than Expected

Photo: Carlton Holls
Photo: Carlton Holls

When Illinois governor J.B. released his massive infrastructure and transportation spending bill on May 17, some astute observers like transit analyst Yonah Freemark argued the proposal would be a “a disaster from the perspective of social equity and the environment” because it earmarked about seven times as much money for roads and bridges as transit. The plan also failed to set aside any money for walking and biking, even though the Active Transportation Alliance had been advocating for $50 million a year for bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

But the bill that passed this weekend, which includes a $33 billion, six-year transportation capital program, turned out to be much better for sustainable transportation than many advocates had anticipated. The capital plan was part of a major legislative coup by the governor that also included legalizing recreational pot, passing an abortion-rights bill, finalizing a $40 billion balanced state budget, and getting an initiative on the 2020 ballot to let voters decide whether the state constitution should be amended to allow for a graduated state income tax.

Active Trans noted in a statement that the final legislation that passed actually includes several major wins for walking, biking, and transit, including the $50 million annual bike/walk fund that they had been pushing for. Their lobbying efforts included getting hundreds of supporters to contact their legislators over the weekend.

The bike and pedestrian funds will be awarded through a competitive grant process under the existing Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program, which is currently bankrolled solely through federal money. Active Trans estimates that the new state funding, which would double the size of the ITEP program, could pay for 125 new projects a year, including safety infrastructure like pedestrian islands and better crosswalks, as well as protected bike lanes and multi-use trails.

The bill also includes longterm, sustainable funding for public transportation, with transit receiving $4.7 billion over the first six years and $281 million for each year afterwards. That represents 23 percent of the total transportation spending, or about twice as much as was indicated in the initial proposal. However Active Trans noted that transit still should have gotten a bigger slice of the pie — they had called for 40 percent, in light of the poor current state of Chicagoland transit infrastructure, and the many safety, health, mobility, and economic benefits public transportation offers for the city and the state.

The revenue will come from a variety of sources, including a number of new fees for drivers, including doubling the state gas tax, which has been stuck at a flat 19 cents a gallon for two decades, to 38 cents, and indexing it for inflation so that the revenue doesn’t lose buying power in the future. The bill also includes fee and tax hikes for vehicle registration, particularly for electric vehicles; and a new state tax on parking garage use. These are sensible ways to to raise money and/or reduce vehicle miles traveled, since car-based travel has many societal costs.

Despite the higher-than-expected spending for sustainable transportation, Yonah Freemark, a former Chicagoan now living in Boston, wasn’t particularly impressed by the capital bill. “There’s no long term vision embedded in the plan,” he tweeted today. “There’s no serious thought about how state will commit to addressing climate change, or shifting people to transit. It’s just… more money.”

As such, Freemark called the capital bill a missed opportunity for change. “One thing that’s always been remarkable about Chicago in my view is that despite all the big talk about big plans, the region is decidedly conservative when it comes to future planning.”

However, other advocates, experts, and local transit agencies expressed more of a glass-half-full (or glass-fully-full) perspective on the passage of the bill.

Audrey Wennink, Metropolitan Planning Council

“A major achievement of this legislation is that it provides sustainable transportation funding, and the gas tax is indexed to inflation for increased resiliency,” Wennink said. “This will provide predictability and the ability for our transportation agencies to plan better.” She also pointed to the $50 million annual bike/walk fund as a win.

Steven Schlickman, former head of UIC’s Urban Transportation Center

“It is very amazing that with bipartisan support Governor Pritzker was able to double the gasoline tax,” Schlickman said. “That used to be a political third rail idea that was anathema to many legislators. I hope Trump and Congress will follow Illinois’ lead [by raising the federal gas tax.]”

Midwest High Speed Rail Association

The group lauded the inclusion of the following items in the bill:

  • New service to Rockford
  • New service to Moline
  • Track improvements for Chicago – Champaign – Carbondale
  • Track improvements in Springfield
  • Expanded Metra service into Kendall County
  • Funding for the CREATE program to relieve freight rail congestion

Regional Transportation Authority

“We are very pleased to see that the Illinois state legislature and Governor Pritzker understand the importance of capital funding for transit and transportation in our state,” the RTA said in a statement. “We are heartened to see that, in addition to the $2.7 billion allocated for transit capital funding through bonding, there is also annual, sustainable revenue, or  ‘pay as you go’ funding allocated for public transportation capital funding. This is the type of  long-term, stable capital funding that public transportation needs and riders deserve to address our longterm capital need of $30 billion over the next decade.”

Chicago Transportation Authority

“We are extremely happy to have a state capital bill for the first time in a decade—one that provides the  stability and certainty the CTA needs,” said spokesman Brian Steele. “Having this sustainable, stable funding in place ensures that CTA will be able to continue its important efforts to modernize and improve our vehicles, stations and facilities.”

Metra

“We are particularly happy that the funding includes an annual, stable and sustainable allotment of capital funding as well as a significant additional amount from a bond program,” said the commuter rail agency in a statement. “This funding will help us begin to tackle our biggest capital priorities, including locomotives, railcars, stations and bridges.”

Pace

“This will be the largest one-time capital infusion in Pace’s history and allows us to maintain the robust system we currently operate and lay the foundation for future growth,” said executive director Rocky Donahue in a statement. “Projects such as the I-55 Express Bus Garage; ADA Communications Technology Upgrade; River Division Expansion; and a new northwest region garage in Wheeling will now become reality thanks to our legislators. We’re excited to get to work.”

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